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We reap what we show – Part 2

We reap what we show

 In We Reap What We Show: Part 1 we saw how the hearing healthcare profession has been basing its marketing assumptions on a series of self-perpetuating myths.

In this article we are going to look at some more "fit-for-purpose" guidelines on the type of imagery we should be using in hearing healthcare marketing and campaigns, together with an introduction to the evidence-based rationale behind them.

 Each time we use an image in our marketing or communication, ask yourself:

  1. Does the person in this image positively PERSONIFY my product or service?
  2. Does this image show someone as they WANT to see themselves?
  3. Does responding to this image reward someone by making them LOOK GOOD in front of others?

If you can't answer YES to these questions, you probably have the wrong image. You're better off changing it.

Goal 1: Personify your product or service

Research1  shows that people are more likely to respond to a product that has a similar personality to their own. If I believe I am a competent person, I will be attracted to products that convey competence. If I am a friendly person, I'll chose products that seem friendly. If I see myself as sophisticated, I'll choose products that exude sophistication, and so on. How does a product convey such traits? Partly it's though the product design itself, but a lot of the personality is conveyed through the imagery and associations used in the marketing.

One recent example of this is Apple's "Hello, I'm a Mac. And I'm a PC," campaign. Here's just one example:

They very cleverly imputed personalities to both their own product and the competitions' through a series of amusing sketches where the character personifying the Mac is cool, friendly, laid back, got things done without a fuss. By contrast the PC was trying "his" best to be friendly and clever but was actually a bit clumsy and didn't quite get it right. It's how Apple wanted us to perceive the difference between the two offerings. They didn't show a typical user. They showed the personified product.

The personification shown above is more literal than it normally needs to be, but it's a great example to learn from because it is so obvious.

A more subtle example is Omega's sponsorship of James Bond. We subconsciously say to ourselves that if it's the sort of product that the famous British spy would use, it must be precise and robust. But we also apply Bond's personality to the product: it too must be sophisticated and have an enviable efficiency that brings the respect of others.

 Here's another watch advert, this time from Tag Heuer..

What personality traits are they imputing to their product? What are they implying about the people that use their product? Are they talking about the product, or the person using the product? The line becomes blurred as the product becomes the symbol for the user.

The principle of personifying products even gets applied to something as utilitarian as soft drinks, like this one from Lucozade.

Goal 2: Model aspiration by holding up an idealised mirror

The beauty product industry is an interesting one. At one extreme we have models that are airbrushed or digitally enhanced to provide an idealised image of beauty​, like this one from Chanel No. 5.

At the other end we have products that challenge such artificiality by claiming to stand up for 'natural beauty', like the Dove Real Beauty campaign. So now we can choose a product at either end of a scale based on what we believe represents our own aspirations.

Marketing in the beauty product industry rarely shows us 'ugly' people. Instead we find symmetry, unblemished skin and averagely proportioned features, all of which have been found to be key components of a widely-accepted perception of beauty.

Does such imagery exclude those who fall short of such idealised beauty?

The short answer is no.

Firstly, it generally makes us feel good to look upon beauty (probably due to reduced cognitive effort = increased feelings of being at ease = feeling safe). Secondly it holds up an idealised mirror: it's not how we see ourselves, but how we would like to see ourselves in an idealised world. When we use the product, we remember the image and we transfer this ideal to ourselves. Thirdly, we may not be able to attain the ideal ourselves but we're happy to associate with the next best thing. We unconsciously reason to ourselves, beautiful people use this product therefore if I use this…

Aspiration and hearing technology marketing

So when we apply this to the marketing of hearing technology, do we see people that represent an idealised self? Not even close.

But what is an idealised self? Well firstly, it's not being old. For many people being old is about approaching death, about losing health, about giving up on the things we enjoy or used to be good at. It's a concept we avoid because it's a threat to us. When we remind people of these things we evoke an avoid response.

Furthermore, most people see themselves as being younger than they are, and this age differential increases as we get older. As a rule of thumb, think ten years younger. That means that if you show a 70 year old in your marketing, you may (if you're lucky) appeal to 80 year olds. But you'll still evoke their avoid response, because of what old age means to them: we cannot escape death.2

So when we pair our product with an image of elderly people, we create an association. Repeatedly present them together, and the association becomes permanent: your product becomes the symbol of ageing. Is that what we want? Is this what we were trying to achieve? To get people to think about their own mortality when they think of bettering their hearing?

No. We want our product to symbolise hearing, and, by implication, all that hearing enables a person to be and to achieve. We want people thinking about how integral to their lives their hearing is. How their hearing enables them to not only be in the right place at the right time, but to grasp each opportunity that comes their way. How it allows others to rely upon them. How it keeps their minds active, their relationships vibrant, their effectiveness at work optimal.

What type of person springs to mind when we think of such things? That's who we want to depict in our imagery.

Modelling situations where hearing plays a key role

We may want to go further. We may want to model situations where hearing is clearly important, especially if we can somehow convey that removing hearing "as it should be" from that situation would result in unintended consequences, and especially if our audience was able to pick up on that themselves with no prompt from us. Self-discovery is always more rewarding.

Learning modelling from the best

One of the most famous examples of this principle of modelling aspiration through association is Marlboro. Marlboro was originally launched as a cigarette for women. The red band around the edge was to hide a lipstick stain; the flavour was more gentle. It achieved a market share of just 1%. In the 1950s the cigarettes manufacturer Philip Morris decided to reposition it as cigarette for men. But how could they take a feminine product and turn it masculine?

Adman Leo Burnett proposed a series of adverts depicting men in typically masculine roles, and top of the list was a cowboy. Philip Morris carried out some research to test the idea and found that there were only 3,000 cowboys in the US so was likely to have limited appeal. They also reported that men in the cities would not identify with cowboys. Their mistake, of course, was the same mistake that hearing care has been making for years: they assumed that the purpose of the imagery was to show typical users and that they would only attract people who saw themselves represented in the marketing. They were wrong. Fortunately for them (though not for the millions of people who would die as a result of smoking) Burnett persuaded them to allow him to pursue the idea.

Within just months it went from being a marginal brand for women, to being the 4th best selling brand in the world. Within two years the companies revenue increased by 300%. More intriguing still, the television ads don't even have to show the product. By showing real life cowboys performing activities full of "flavour", they not only personified the product itself but they modelled an aspiration for people to associate themselves with by using the product.

As I wrote in How to get people to want and like hearing aids, if a harmful product such as a cigarette can successfully establish itself in people's hearts and minds through personification and modelling aspiration, how much more could—and should—we who have such a life-affirming, beneficial product?

We reap what we show.

Goal 3: Make responders look good in front of others

Imagine we had seen an advertisement that described a product for someone who has fleas...

The ad caught our attention because it was so bizarrely amusing:

A man in a convenience store is seen trying to stifle an itch, but we get a sense that there's an urgency building, and building, and… until he suddenly explodes into a scratching frenzy that begins hurling him around the store, knocking over displays, dragging great swathes of products of the shelves, as other customers panic and desperately dive out of his way until he eventually falls flat on his face.

A voice announces:

“FleaAway™. When the little things get you down.”

Even though the marketing grabs us, and even though we easily remember the message, we still don't  respond to the ad because we don't believe we personally have a problem with fleas. The ad is irrelevant to us.

But later on that week imagine we were to find ourselves in a queue at our local convenience store waiting our turn to be served, and we happen to notice someone purchase a can of FleaAway™ immediately ahead of us.

What assumptions will we make about the person who responds to such an ad?

Probably that they have fleas. (We take a step backwards.)

In order to grab our attention the ad used humour to poke fun at the idea of having fleas — but in doing so it also made fun of people with fleas. So the person in the queue ahead of us now becomes a potential target for our own jokes. It has stigmatised them. The ad has given us permission by setting a precedent and making it common knowledge without recrimination. We may not joke to their face, but we may be more inclined to do so when with our friends.

But imagine if one day we were then to find ourselves with the same problem...

We know that people with fleas get joked about; we may have done it ourselves. We also know that if we are seen picking up our can of FleaAway™ it's going to tell others we have fleas. The advert has made it difficult for us to respond to it because doing so will make us look bad in front of others.

The Trap of Making Your Responders Look Bad

For decades the marketing of hearing technology has fallen into the same trap. We have seen some very memorable advertisements that grab attention and certainly get people talking, but that makes them all the more dangerous because our intended audience know that others are likely to impute the associations from the advert to them if they respond.

Two examples of hearing care adverts that fall into this trap are shown below.

​An advert for hearing tests

An advert for a hearing aid 

In many respects these are great adverts: well shot, well timed, with an unexpected twist. They're clearly designed to be shared. So what's wrong with them?

To understand this we must remember that it's not about the ad itself but about the thought processes that are triggered by the ad. In other words, what meaning is implied. Firstly, in both cases older people are the ones that have hearing problems which reinforces the stereotype. In second ad older people are depicted living in their own little world. If we had demonstrated the same prejudice or bias against a different race, religion or sexual orientation there would, quite rightly, be hell to pay. So why do we think it's remotely acceptable to make fun of older people?

It then gets worse: it makes fun of people with hearing loss! Would we make fun of someone who was partially sight? Or had mobility problems? It is wrong. Hearing care is supposed to set society an example, not lead the chant with its own institutional prejudice. We have to be better than this.

Ask yourself honesty: would YOU respond to such an ad?

We expect others to respond to such ads as these, but would you or I want to? Becasue if we do, we are affirming that that's how we see ourselves and want others to see us! Are we not more likely to avoid doing anything whilst the ad is fresh in people's minds, in an attempt to show them that we don't identify with it, that we haven't been persuaded by it?

The Dilemma

But now this leaves us with a dilemma. Because if a product is for addressing a sensitive topic that people don't want to think about, how do we get the message across without risking an avoid response?

This will be the subject of a separate article. But by way of an appetiser, consider how anti-dandruff shampoo does it. Or hair colouring for greying hair. Or sanitary towels. Or mouthwash for bad breath. Or deodorant. Or toilet paper. Or anti-wrinkle cream. Or slimming products.

The great news is that we already have these and plenty of other successful precedents we can turn to. It's just tragic that we've taken this long to apply it to hearing care and hearing technology.

What seeds are you sowing today with your own imagery?

Whilst we in hearing care have persisted in reinforcing our outdated stereotypes and perpetuating the myths we discussed earlier, we have been sowing seeds that we will now continue to have to reap for many years to come. If we have been sowing weeds amongst the wheat, why are we so surprised when our crop is so sparse? When our clients are so tangled up with negative perceptions?

We cannot escape the consequences of our historic actions, but we can certainly prevent the same bad seed ruining the future.

We must just remember that however we communicate our messages, we reap what show.


  1. See, for example, Aaker, J. L. (1997). Dimensions of brand personality. Journal of Marketing research, 347-356
  2. Fiske, Susan T. and Taylor, Shelley E. (2013). Social Cognition: from brains to culture (2nd Edition) pp 334-336. 
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We reap what we show — Part 1